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Ohio special election tests the 'Lamb model' for Democrats in conservative districts

Laina Yost
Reporter
Danny O’Connor, the Democratic candidate for the Aug. 7 special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, speaks with voters on Aug. 3, 2018. (Photo: Brian Cahn/Zuma Wire)

In March, Conor Lamb, a centrist Democrat, won a House seat in a special election in a conservative Pennsylvania district. Since then, the “Lamb model” has been followed by candidates in Republican-leaning districts around the country.

Lamb’s surprising win provided a blueprint for how the blue party could take back power in the House. Lamb had a moderate, issue-based message. He would not promise to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and he opposed the single-payer health insurance plan (aka “Medicare for all”) that is a favorite among progressives.

Tuesday’s special election in Ohio will be the test of whether the message can work again and if the Lamb model still holds.

Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder, is running in a district that has been held by a Republican since 1983. It stretches from the suburbs of Columbus, the state’s capital, to surrounding rural counties.

O’Connor’s message is often compared to Lamb’s. He is also running as a moderate in a predominantly Republican district. His opponent, Troy Balderson, was endorsed by President Trump, who told a raucous rally Saturday night that “[Balderson’s] really tough. He’s really smart. He never stops working.”

O’Connor, in an interview, said he is paying attention to issues that voters talk to him about. Trump, Russia collusion and abolishing ICE are not on the list. Like many other moderate Democratic candidates, he emphasizes his ability to work with others, even those who are not from his party.

“When I talk to voters, I ask them what they worry about,” O’Connor told Yahoo News. “And they usually don’t mention the president. They mention important issues like their benefits, like health care access.”

He has stayed mostly silent on Trump, although he said he’s “willing to have a conversation” with the president on infrastructure and the opioid crisis.

“The issues that help families are not Democratic issues or Republican issues,” O’Connor said. “They’re just the right issues, and if we can get solutions, it doesn’t matter where they come from — we need to implement them.”

He’s quick to echo the calls for new leadership in Washington and has said he will not vote for Pelosi, joining a growing list of candidates. Pressed on the issue in an MSNBC interview, O’Connor reluctantly said he would vote for whoever the Democrats put forward as a candidate for speaker. But he has since backtracked on the issue and said he wouldn’t support Pelosi.

Janetta King, president of Innovation Ohio, a progressive policy think tank, told Yahoo News that O’Connor can choose what he speaks about with voters and it’s wise not to go after Trump.

“I think that O’Connor is right in wanting to keep the conversation local. The Trump thing is going to be what it is. It will be the backdrop in which all of these elections are happening from now through November. That is what it is, and it’s not necessarily in the candidate’s control.”

O’Connor helps deliver campaign materials to a Democratic field office during a walkabout on Aug. 3, 2018. (Photo: Brian Cahn/Zuma Wire)

The race has become increasingly tight. The Cook Political Report rated it as a tossup, and new polling from Monmouth University showed the two candidates in a virtual tie.

The race will likely be decided by voter turnout, and, fearing a repeat of the Pennsylvania defeat, Republicans have sent high-profile figures to the district, including Trump. Vice President Mike Pence also campaigned in central Ohio at the end of July.

Republicans, including the president, have painted O’Connor as a “Nancy Pelosi liberal” who will join with progressives once elected. Ads from the conservative Congressional Leadership Fund that ran in July said O’Connor is part of the “liberal resistance.”

While Democratic energy may be shifting to the left, with the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and her support of other progressives, candidates in Midwestern states like Ohio are taking a more cautious approach.

“Candidates have to tap into progressive enthusiasm, but in districts gerrymandered like this, they also have to show independents and even some moderate Republicans who are disaffected with Trump that they have a place to go,” King said. “And that is what O’Connor is doing — energizing his base but also giving permission to those disaffected independent or moderate voters to vote for him.”

An O’Connor victory would spur talk about a “blue wave” in November. Other Democratic candidates following similar strategies have turned races in previously safe Republican districts into tossups.

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema is running for a Senate seat in Arizona that will be vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake. It has been held by a Republican for 23 years, but Sinema is polling ahead of all three of her potential opponents.

She often highlights a magazine that rated her the third most independent member of Congress, and distances herself from the establishment Democratic Party. Sinema told Politico she would not support Sen. Chuck Schumer as party leader, and, as a member of Congress, did not vote for Pelosi in 2016.

Clarke Tucker, running for Congress in Arkansas, emphasizes his ability to be bipartisan in order to get things done. Tucker has described himself as “moderate in how he’s willing to work across the aisle.”

Kelly Dietrich, founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, said that while each race is different, his organization has some simple advice for candidates.

“We teach candidates, especially those running at the local level, you are not running against Donald Trump,” Dietrich told Yahoo News. “There’s a million voices talking about Donald Trump. When you run as a Democrat, people already know where you stand. … You need to be talking about why your race matters to them personally.”

King agreed. For local Democratic candidates, sticking to the issues may be their best bet for a win in November.

“If Trump is No. 1 for you and you start out having a conversation with voters who may have voted for Trump, with an anti-Trump message, you’ve essentially ended the conversation,” she said. “I think by going to the issues, you are able to have a more authentic and productive conversation with voters.”

Even if O’Connor loses Tuesday, he’ll have the chance for a do-over in November, when the winning candidate will have to defend the seat he just won.

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